Monday, June 1, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Ten: Films 16-20)

Our job eighty-percent complete, the “fun part” stands before us now, with the chronicling of The Key Grip’s twenty favorite movies. Let’s not waste any more time getting started.

20. Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), (1964). Movies that contain a single iconic image or monologue have an unfair burden in the competition for new audiences, in that many people who haven’t seen the movie have seen the image or the monologue and filled their own movie in around it, complete with their own expectations about what the rest of the film is going to be like. This is bad enough when the iconic image is so consistent with the rest of the picture that people feel they don’t “have” to see it anymore (which see, Alien), but the real trouble begins—people really start short-changing themselves—when the durable takeaway from the film is wholly non-representative of the rest of the picture.

Such is the case with Slim Pickens’ unforgettable, unintentional, un-regretted, but entirely out-of-context ride aboard a recently-dropped nuclear bomb near the conclusion Dr. Strangelove—a vignette parodied so many times that, upon recently showing the original to an erstwhile girlfriend of mine, she suggested that the filmmakers were copying someone else. And friends, neighbors, well-wishers, if you hear me say nothing else in these pages, hear me say this: The rest of this movie is nothing like that image, whatsoever.

Adapter-director Stanley Kubrick (yet another supreme talent whose achievements will be scandalously under-represented in this list, if only by a factor of one other movie for which there just wasn’t quite enough room) channels the best inspirations of some of the finest directors to precede him for this hilarious social commentary on the absurdity of the Cold War. From Fritz Lang to Truffaut, Kubrick salts appropriately obscure nods to some of the best choices for characterization and framing at his disposal, borrowing mad scientist Rotwang from Lang’s Metropolis, and the notion of the unseen, through-the-window gunfire from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player--together with countless other examples that have established this picture as a favored re-watch among students of the medium and avid amateur film-buffs alike. “There was a period of three months where I heard Dr. Strangelove dialogue form the moment I woke up until I went to bed at night,” commented Vera Anderson, first wife of the late Z-Channel programmer Jerry Harvey, during her interview discussing Harvey for Xan Cassavetes’ documentary about the station.

Ultimately a character-piece (despite all superficial appearances to the contrary), Dr. Strangelove tells the unnervingly credible story of an Air Force base at which the Colonel in charge, Col. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has slipped quietly into madness and, in consequence, ordered a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union by his almost-too-late-to-recall bombers, led by Maj. T.J. “King” Kong (Pickens). When word of the rogue makes its way to the darkest basement lair of Washington (“Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here; this is the War Room!”), the job of breaking the news falls to Joint Chiefs representative Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott). ...But for the small problem, that is, that Turgidson is finding himself distressingly torn about whether or not the government should bother trying to recall the bombers, anyway.

In just one of the astounding statements that he made over his tragically shortened career, Peter Sellers grabs this movie by the throat and bashes it against every wall in the room with his coolly resolute fulfillment of three completely separate parts—with performances so distinct in character, mood and accent that the same former girlfriend of mine refused to believe that they were all the same actor until I proved it to her on IMDB.

We meet him for the first time in the personage of Ripper’s NATO observer Lionel Mandrake, desperately trying to coax the recall codes from his nutty C.O., while army soldiers outside the building are trying with equal desperation to kill the both of them and take the base. Not long after, when Turgidson can finally hang up from the incessant phone calls of his bored and lonely secretary for long enough to sort-out his briefing, the President to whom he delivers it, Presdient Merkin Muffly, turns out to be Sellers again—this time finding himself haplessly mired in an impossible telephone conversation of his own with the Soviet Premiere, who is drunk on the other end and oscillating wildly between not comprehending or believing what he’s being told, and accusing Muffly of having been discourteous with him.

When Kong and his crew are nearly shot-down by a Soviet air defense missile and their recall radio is shorted-out in the process, the grim reality of the situation prompts those in attendance in the War Room to begin marshaling their resources to prepare for the worst. It is then that we encounter Sellers in his last and greatest role—the wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist of the title, a man whose fixation on the subsequent breeding behavior of those few humans who might survive the conflagration serves as a fitting red ribbon on the arabesque appetites and unfathomable character defects of these people in whom all of our lives have been (and remain, incidentally) continually entrusted.

This is, in the end, the simple genius of Kubrick’s adaptation of Peter George’s book (called Red Alert). To make the film’s message digestible for a fatalistically desensitized, post-Cuban-missile-crisis audience, he had to sneak up on them with the gravity of the situation—and to sneak up on them, he chose consciously to mold the very straight original text into an absurdist comedy in which people behaved in ways so wacky and incomprehensible that the grim horror of what just might happen could hide from our cynicism in plain view. Oh and one more thing: As comedies go, it's very difficult to conjure as successful an example of its genre--in that on top of everything else, it's actually funny.

19. Yi Yi (A One and a Two), (2000). Director Edward Yang returns to familiar subject matter in a far more accessible and linear style than his earlier, cult favorite A Brighter Summer Day, this time following three generations of an extended family living in Taipei—from a nearly undermined wedding at the movie’s outset, through the lives and times of a galaxy of delicately interrelated characters with quiet crises all their own. This is a long and contentedly patient work, with characters’ inner conflicts not so much on display as peeking out from around window-curtains, ranging over issues as familiar as infidelity and the nature of love, at one extreme, to those as unfamiliar as whether a shadowy and self-made businessman should be trusted to rescue one’s faltering dreams of commercial success, at the other. And despite the fact that Yang will indulge in nearly three hours’ worth of exposed film canisters along the way, at the conclusion of the experience there doesn’t seem to have been a single gratuitous or disposable moment.

Choosing non-professional acting talent as is his custom, Yang inspires writer-director in his own right Wu Nien to crackle with the credibility of untrained inspiration as N.J., the conscience-conflicted third partner in a struggling computer company that hopes to tie its fortunes to a wealthy and unscrupulous Japanese computer-game tycoon. While sorting his mixed emotions about the impending deal in Tokyo, N.J. takes up a brief re-initiation of a relationship he had (and unilaterally dissolved for no obvious reason), thirty years earlier. Meanwhile the woman to whom N.J. has been married this whole time, herself emotionally damaged and unsettlingly needy, is in his absence barely holding-down an extended household consisting of N.J.’s perpetually hazed son, sexually adventurous and self-despising daughter, loan-shark-indebted brother-in-law, comatose mother, and piano-playing and possibly abused next-door-neighbor.

The quiet with which the desperation of all these many figures plays out is only part of Yang’s genius; the other part is his playful and yet somehow seamless shifts in narrative point-of-view, from long vignettes of N.J.’s son becoming increasingly obsessed with photographing (and, to that extent, living inside) the world that others can’t see at the backs of their own heads, to long vignettes of N.J. strolling arm-in-arm with his erstwhile lover on an appropriately boulder-strewn and alien-looking “beach” near Tokyo, and back to the slow-dawning realization on the part of his daughter, that her own newfound appetites may be clouding her capacity to judge character in ways that have important and possibly even lasting consequences.

To call this movie anything other than a “family portrait” would be importantly dishonest, for this is indeed the heart of Yang’s matter with these people: They are, in the end, come Hell, high-water, or both, a family. On the other hand, the maudlin self-mythology that so-called “family portraits” often evokes is evaded deftly by a director with a keen sense of the precise moment when his principals are beginning to sound unduly sanctimonious or victimized, and we could all do with a little break to splash around in some slightly pulpier fare. The fact that there are Yakuza and semi-enslaved hostess girls and random acts of property damage and gripping existential questions on the nature and quality of life, serves not as striking contrast to the far more identifying dilemmas faced by N.J. and his family, but rather as the license through which those more routine dilemmas may be legitimized.

Neither does Yang settle for a “family portrait” level of professionalism when it comes to craft: From the carefully composed shots—some of them lasting only an instant or two, others lasting whole minutes—to the sparing use of soundtrack, Yi Yi is in the end that most delicate fabric of the quietly beautiful and sweeping motion pictures of the highest Asian filmmaking traditions. Woven from what might in lesser hands be mostly banal and predictable subject matter, Yang strikes a perfect balance between the deeply personal dramas of a large and semi-typically challenged family, on the one hand, and the more cinematic plot-points against which those personal family dramas ultimately derive all of their special gravitas in this picture, on the other.

Comparisons are often made between Yang and Bertolucci—in particular between this picture and 1900—but I for one feel that a closer parallel is deserved of the finer works of Antonioni, particularly La Notte, despite the completely different sense of scope. Whereas 1900 is a character-piece set against the backdrop of fascism’s rise in southern Europe, La Notte and Yi Yi are both character-pieces set against a backdrop of nothing. And in no small way this is the film’s point: There is no lumbering movement with ominous pan-social consequences lurking just over the next hill; there is only us—there is only this. There is only now.

18. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). (Author’s note: The following is a re-print of my herein previously published review of this film, dated November 30, 2008.)

Like many of the best foreign Directors, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami apparently doesn't lose much sleep at night over the question of whether his films have too little plot. Far from the roar of pyro crews and the all-nighter hothouses of CG post-production that are modern Hollywood, Kiarostami is free to explore the question, not of how much eventfulness an audience may tolerate in a two hour sit-down in a darkened theater, but rather how little.

Without exception Kiarostami’s films are explorations into the subtlety of characterization—questions of morals and morale, decision vs. destiny--often hinging on a single event buried deep within the fourth reel and, in case we hadn't yet caught the premeditation in such choices, delivered off-camera anyway. Though perhaps an acquired taste for Western palettes, Kiarostami's introspective character pieces are always provocative, always moving, and in the end, always a treat to the senses to which few other filmmakers may aspire, and The Wind Will Carry Us is the apogee of his portfolio. It is a film so adroitly timed, so pitch-perfect in every tiniest detail, that its completion would surely have stranded a lesser individual with the crippling sensation that he would never be able to make another film again.

The film opens with a long take of the (unexpectedly?) beautiful Iranian countryside, in wide-shot--a tiny-looking International Scout making its way down a winding road only barely noticeable in an unremarkable corner of the scene, while the vehicle's four occupants, recorded in production sound instead of ADR, can be heard quietly bickering about whether or not they've misunderstood their driving directions. Even at this early juncture two things are inescapably apparent about the experience that this film will represent: First, our director sees no reason to explain himself--you know as much about who these people are and where they're going as anyone else, and no more than you're supposed to--and second, if you'll pardon the pun, this film is hardly in a hurry to get anywhere. Through a series of long takes shot at different angles along the route, this anti-scene of four guys gently squabbling about the proper turnoff continues for over five and a half minutes, long after the opening titles would have been over and done with, had there even been any.

Eventually the quartet finds their intended destination--a small village carved into a steep hillside and notable to our eyes as the sort of un-even-roofed hodgepodge that we'd be less surprised to find in desert Africa. Indeed after finding a young guide on the outskirts of town, our presumptive lead character (and the only one of the four whom we will ever see on camera throughout the film) makes his way literally across the tops of the earthen dwellings that will encompass his universe for the duration of the picture, hopping first up two feet to transit the next interval, and then down again.

Kiarostami devotes this opening reel of the film to establishing not just its tempo, but also its principal source of mystery--that these four obviously urban Tehranians have checked themselves into the closest local semblance of a guesthouse, apparently for the purposes of monitoring the health of an infirmed and elderly local, convalescing at the opposite end of the village. Throughout his long walk across the rooftops with the boy who will be his foil, our lead character--"The Engineer"--inquires repeatedly and with implied familiarity about the old woman's health, the boy's side-mouthed answers revealing either discretion or ignorance; we aren't supposed to know which.

I can think of no higher tribute to Kiarostami's achievement with this picture than that, by the time we actually discover what these four men are doing here and why they've taken so much interest in the health of an old woman, it no longer really matters to us anymore: Like the characters themselves, we've become immersed in the day-to-day rhythm of this at once surreally alien and improbably familiar little community. Its cranky restaurant matron, her semi-estranged and possibly philandering husband, the arrestingly pregnant and then arrestingly “un-pregnant” innkeeper, the hauntingly beautiful young woman who milks a cow in darkness so that their collective guests might enjoy just one more locally tricky little comfort from home.

The film is described by assorted critics as a mystery, and to that extent they're right: We are meant to wonder, of course, who these people are and how they came to find themselves in such a far-flung place with such a seemingly insignificant agenda (indeed at one point in the film the Engineer's three accomplices become so bored that they literally disappear, never to be seen again). But to describe the film with this single identifier is to entirely miss Kiarostami's point. There is mystery in life, of course, but it isn't the glamorous, maybe-they're-spies kind of mystery that we so often find ourselves escaping into at the movies; it is rather the mystery of mundanity--the strange shooting-script by which all of us on this homey little planet of ours seem to play out the same micro-dramas, the same rivalries, the same petty squabbles. The mystery in life is that it could contain so little real mystery, and yet seem so mysterious--so wondrous. So beautiful.

17. Layer Cake (2005). “You’re a smart boy. But you keep very bad company.”

If it seems superficially implausible that British East-ender Matthew Vaughn would be given something not unlike a blank check by Sony Pictures to try his hand at directing, then one must consider his previous two assignments—as producer and script supervisor for Guy Ritchie’s incomparable Snatch, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. That kind of greatness doesn’t strike where it pleases, either, folks, and it is to the betterment of us all that the suits at Sony knew a bird-in-the-hand when they saw one, since their semi-bold vestment of Vaughn resulted in the creation of one of the most delicately balanced and down-to-the-second flawless of all the fractured-narrative gangster movies that have ever been attempted.

Daniel Craig plays the part of a smart, upper-crusty and nameless young cocaine broker—the sort of guy Burt Reynolds’ Hooper was thinking of when he said, of stunt-men, “these days they all wear pleated pants and carry little pocket calculators.” At the film’s open Craig’s character (often referred to as “XXXX” for convenience’s sake) explains the modern English drug trade, and his role in it, with a marvelously understated voiceover that could easily have come across as unsubtle and manipulative in the hands of lesser filmmakers. XXXX, it transpires, is trying to hold his tidy little arrangement together for one last week before he can extricate his ill-gotten finances from the bank, and disappear. Only problem is, his benefactor and skin-crawlingly taciturn supplier Jimmie Price (Kenneth Cranham) has two important assignments for his favored protégé, neither of them without messy and possibly even life-threatening entanglements: To move a way-too-big shipment of ecstasy, on the one hand, and to locate the runaway daughter of an even better-connected colleague, on the other.

In due course the ecstasy turns out to have been stolen from a band of grimly homicidal Serbian militia who dispatch their top man to hunt down whoever is trying to move the shipment and return with both it, and him. Meanwhile the hunt for the missing daughter turns out not to have been the well-connected-colleague’s idea at all, thus putting XXXX in the delicate position of trying to explain why he’s been stalking and attempting to bundle-off the target, to an unhappy father with no qualms about venting his frustrations in a most creatively permanent way. This is not even to mention that the loud-mouthed nobodies who stole the ecstasy in the first place are splashing XXXX’s name and reputation all over the place, to both cop and criminal alike, that XXXX’s new love interest turns out to be the long-time lover of the nephew of the principal thief, or that XXXX’s hired muscle Morty (George Harris) must disappear from his side at the critical moment as a result of some unfinished business left over from his days running with the counterpart for Jimmy Price, Gene (Colm Meany).

Just as the tangle of overlapping storylines risks indigestibility, XXXX presents himself at Gene’s flat for what I would argue is the centerpiece moment of the film: Two colleagues at the highest reaches of the London drug trade, coolly friendly but first and foremost mutually respectful, sucking-down single malt scotch and splitting what just might be the most memorable order of Chinese takeaway in film history, all while Gene fills XXXX in on the dealings that render this whole web vastly more complicated and self-telescoping than either he or us had previously understood. Clearly it will take every last shred of XXXX’s guile, every last contact, every last favor, and no small allotment of blind good luck, if he is to escape all of this intrigue in one piece—let alone retire at the end of a single further week to a life of princely anonymity somewhere else. “Let’s go back to his place and see if what he says is true,” a certain character says over the momentarily crumpled figure of XXXX, at a point roughly halfway through the film, “and if it’s not, we’ll both kill him.” --And what of the fact that the two characters having this conversation are, even on the basis of this short read, the last two people you’d expect? Par for the course in this how-much-trouble-can-we-expect-him-to-get-out-of cavalcade of sinking fortunes, intrigue, dishonesty and greed.

I’ve been a sucker for movies of this style for a long time, now: Not so much for the violence or the grim subject matter but for the tendency in pictures of this genre to weave such sparklingly multi-faceted plot lines, often with the paths of characters crossing at moments neither opportune nor expected but just perfectly placed to ensure maximum leverage over everything that happens after. And with this picture Matthew Vaughn stakes his claim to status as one of the great, fractured-narrative gangster movie directors of all time. His is a film that works positively flawlessly, regardless of which ending you watch—and if that last comment doesn’t quite make sense, you’ll have to rent the DVD and give all three of them a try for yourself.

16. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulin de Montmartre (2001). Not every director is principally concerned about narrative, and with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (for short), placed back-to-back with Layer Cake, placed back-to-back with The Wind Will Carry Us, our list could not do a better job of highlighting the latitudes with which filmmakers may choose to prioritize or de-prioritize the significance of the events they’re showing, as opposed to the characters or the scenes or the suffused emotional resonances sought as overarching takeaways from the finished product. Whereas everything in Layer Cake, the settings, the soundtrack, the set decorations—even the exquisitely painted characters—exists in service of the plot, the plot of Amelie exists strictly in service of the feelings we in the audience are supposed to experience at the taking of each scene.

Audrey Tautou is the title character, a young woman whose over-protective father deprived her of a properly interactive childhood out of fear that she suffered from a fragile heart muscle and could die if she received too much external stimuli. As an adult working at the (real-life) Café Deux Moulins in Montmartre, her life is bounded by a an ensemble cast of equally flawed and sympathetic creatures, from the surly and distrusting Joseph (Dominique Pinon), to his hypochondriac girlfriend and Amelie’s fellow waitress Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) to the Renoir-obsessed copyist Raymond (Serge Merlin) who lives down the hall and tries against all better expectations to impart an appreciation for Renoir’s subtle majesty to a simple-minded stock boy who works downstairs.

Upon learning of the tragic death of Princess Diana, Amelie drops the lid to her perfume bottle, which rolls haphazardly across the bathroom floor, eventually dislodging a loose plate of tile behind which Amelie discovers the childhood treasure-box of a previous tenant from many years earlier. Succumbing to the vagaries of fate, she decides to take it upon herself to see that the treasure-box is (anonymously) returned—thus setting in motion her addiction to carefully orchestrated, carefully un-credited acts of kindness toward the people around her.

In due course she repairs the relationship between Joseph and Georgette, enlists the help of an Air Hostess to persuade her father to travel by having one of his garden gnomes photographed in exotic locales, chastens the abusive boss of the store-clerk downstairs by fiddling with the wiring in his apartment, and, in what is to be her piece de la resistance, plots to return the lost photo album of attractive stranger “Nino” (Matthieu Kassovitz) who himself seems preoccupied with collecting the discarded photo strips of a half-seen figure at a coin-operated picture booth at Gare de L’est.

Only thing is, her childhood of involuntary estrangement from healthy human contact is preventing her—and her alone—from realizing that she is, in fact, romantically intrigued by this dashing young man, and not just bent on returning his photo album in the most playful and exotically deferred manner possible. It then falls to her unconditionally loving friends to straighten her out in time (if they can) as to the true source of her desire to do these anonymous good works, and set her on the path to healthy intimacy with the kindly photo collector.

Each of Jeunet’s four principal works are nothing if not visually and aurally arresting, from City of Lost Children with its dreamy rust-brown cityscapes and toothpaste-green water, to Delicatessen with its inimitable sonic repetitions to emphasize the rhythmic mundanity of life inside that terrifically striking little apartment building, to the piano-black claustrophobia of Alien Resurrection, and Amelie is his statement-piece in each regard. The sets are more conscientiously decorated than in any other picture I’ve yet seen, with the richly over-saturated reds of Amelie’s apartment carefully “popped” through foreground placement of a brilliantly ice-blue lampshade, and the warmly suffused ambers of the café abutted in sharp cutaway with the dingy olives of the shopkeeper’s dangerously re-wired bedroom.

The ear, too, is treated like an old friend in this one—with a satisfyingly ham-delivered voiceover (about essentially nothing) setting the not-too-serious tone with far more aplomb than any actor could convey, telegraphing unmistakeably our requirement to send our hang-ups about conflict and narrative tension outside to play in traffic for awhile.

On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, the stern-and-stentorian narrator intones at the film’s opening, “a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing-beats per minute landed on Rue St Vincent, in Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born.”

...You know, a word or two of caution may be in order—perhaps inspired by having just re-read that last line of voiceover: Though the vibe of this film is inescapably “feel-good,” the picture itself is also inescapably French, and by that measure decidedly not for children.

And so we’ve arrived at last. With this installment, the Key Grip’s list of the hundred greatest movies enters the short subset of films that started with offsetting number-one rankings. I won’t tell you how many of these, from this five, were afforded that honor—but from here on in, every movie we discuss received at least one initial nod as my number-one favorite film, ever. Perhaps that means we can look forward to more frequent installments from now to the end of our journey.

…Perhaps just the opposite.


shabec said...

These reviews are simply amazing. I can't imagine how much time and effort it must be to create each paragraph.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Well, thank *YOU* for reading!